Rex Miller was alway meant to make “Citizen Ashe,” the new documentary he co-directed with Sam Pollard about Arthur Ashe, the groundbreaking tennis legend who found his own way to becoming a leading activist. “I’d say this is part of my whole lifelong tennis journey as I grew up a tennis player, had tennis fanatic parents. And my first glimpse of Arthur Ashe — I was 6 years old and I was at the match in 1968 when he won the U.S. Open. And I used to try to play like him as well as the other greats, Stan Smith and Jimmy Connors, all those guys,” Miller tells Gold Derby (watch the exclusive video interview above).
Miller, who helmed the 2015 doc “Althea” about Althea Gibson, the first African-American tennis player to win a Grand Slam title, started work on “Citizen Ashe” five years ago after the daughter of a “Life” magazine photographer reached out to him. Her father had spent a week with Ashe in 1968 and she had 41 rolls of unseen film for Miller. The project got rolling after Ashe’s widow and photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and his brother Johnnie Ashe came onboard. Pollard, with whom Miller had worked previously, joined about a year and a half ago to help complete the film.
“Citizen Ashe,” which opened in limited release this weekend and will debut on HBO Max and CNN Films in 2022, is a tale of two Arthurs: the athlete and the activist. It chronicles his rise tennis, breaking barriers in a predominantly white sport, as he became the first Black man to win the U.S. Open in 1968 — the start of the Open Era in tennis — the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975. As Ashe found success on the court throughout the ’60s, off the court he faced pressured to speak out for civil rights as other Black athletes, like Muhammad Ali, were doing. The doc features interviews with Moutoussamy-Ashe, Johnnie Ashe, tennis greats Billie Jean King and John McEnroe, and includes a running voiceover from Ashe himself from an in-depth interview he had done with his biographer discussing his career, his initial reluctance to take a stance, and the extra avenues he had to navigate as a Black athlete who didn’t have the “emotional freedom” to let out on-court outbursts like McEnroe did lest he be seen as a stereotypical “angry Black man.”
“I didn’t know much about Arthur’s off-court activism at all,” Pollard admits. “So to realize that he was a young man growing up in Richmond, Virginia, a very segregated community, who was taught to not make waves and then becoming a star in the tennis world in UCLA, being on the Davis Cup team, getting all these accolades — and then someone like Harry Edwards reaches out to him and says, ‘Arthur, we want you to break some barriers like we’re doing in the other aspects of sports.’ And Arthur’s being reticent and being basically called by some of these other athletes, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and even Harry Edwards, an Uncle Tom. But he understood what was going on in America. He wasn’t ready yet to speak out. He needed to find a way to have a platform to speak out.”
Pollard cites three events that led to Ashe finally speaking out, all in 1968: the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and Ashe’s U.S. Open win. Following his first Grand Slam victory, Ashe used his new elite platform to fight for social justice, including in racially segregated South Africa. He continued to do so until his death in 1993, from AIDS-related pneumonia after contracting HIV from a blood transfusion, establishing the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.
“For me, the root of his activism was back when he was about 13 years old when Emmett Till was murdered and Emmett Till was the same age as Arthur,” Miller says. “I think that was the root and being from Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, coming up in the ‘40s and early ‘50s, you couldn’t go protest. There were no BLM activists to meet with and start a movement. So also, as he said, he was ‘the raisin in the rice pudding.’ He was the only [Black man] in tennis. As you’re coming up, you can’t just start throwing rocks in the country club, so it took him time, he resisted. He dialogued with but resisted a lot of input from others, including Stokely Carmichael, in addition to Harry Edwards. And then when he was ready, when he had his platform, he was now world champion, then he said about his activism publicly in a more strident way. Over time too, he was long-term and intentional.”
When Miller first started working on the film in 2016, he could not foresee what 2020 would bring, and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, “Citizen Ashe” feels as timely as ever. “I started this five years ago. Even if it came out two years after that, I think he’s still relevant. His approach, what his life represented … his strategies have always been relevant,” Miller states. “2020, the summer when the BLM movement and protests were going on, they tore down a lot of the statues in Richmond, the Confederate generals’ statues on Monument Boulevard. That boulevard is now called Arthur Ashe Boulevard, so we actually filmed that day when 5,000 people came out for the renaming of Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Everything that was happening then, I was like, ‘We gotta get this film out, we gotta get this film out.’ It comes out when it comes out, and like Sam said, it’s just kind of nice icing on the cake that it’s gotten a nice reception.”
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